Sunday, January 10, 2016

WARREN RODWELL - INTERNATIONAL ADVENTURER/
HOSTAGE SURVIVOR/SPEAKER/SONGWRITER

THE LONGEST HELD AUSTRALIAN CAPTIVE OUTSIDE WAR - IN-DEPTH PERSONAL INTERVIEW

by Lannah Sawers-Diggins





1 Please tell us a little bit about your childhood, your background; 

I am a W.A.S.P. (White Anglo Saxon Protestant), born on 16th June 1958 at Inglemere Private Hospital in Homebush, a suburb of Sydney, famous these days for the Olympic stadium. My mother often claimed, in all seriousness, that my father (deceased 1990) never paid the hospital bill. 


My ancestry is British, with the first of my namesake forebears being transported in 1838 from Salisbury, Wiltshire, England at the age of 19 to Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) for stealing five silk handkerchiefs. After emancipation, David Rodwell and his young family (including my great, great grandfather David Cornelius Rodwell) followed the gold rush to Victoria. 

In the early 20th Century, David’s grandson (my great grandfather Samuel Richard Rodwell) pursued the lure of gold in western New South Wales, where he subsequently coughed himself to death through years of labouring in coal mines and a cement works. His son (my grandfather Stephen David Cornelius Rodwell) and bride, along with their three primary school age children (including my father, David Richard Rodwell, who later became a bricklayer), moved to Sydney during the Depression years. At the start of World War II. Stephen enlisted in the Australian Army. However, his marriage did not survive afterwards. 

My mother, Ellen Scott, had served in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) during WWII. Her family and free settler English/ (paternal) Scottish grandparents hailed from the New England region of northern NSW. Ellen’s father and grandfather were government railway employees during both world wars. My parents were keen dancers. This is how they met in the early 1950s in Sydney. 



I have an older brother and sister, with whom I have intentionally maintained relatively close and continuous contact with over the years. Our mother suffered with serious physical and mental health problems. She split up with our father and firstly placed us in St Christopher’s (Church of England) Home for Little Children, Taree NSW when I was 18 months old. Most of my formative years were in institutional Protestant care. There has been media mention in recent years that I was a ward of the state. This is not correct.



We were placed voluntarily in church care due to family circumstances, ill health and povertyIn fact, the official title given to children of that era/scenario is “The Forgotten Australians” (FA). A national apology to some 500,000 FA’s (including voluntary placements,state wards and British child migrants) was given by the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd and Federal Opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, on 16th November 2009.

On 23rd May 1965 (approximately three weeks before my seventh birthday), Ellen Rodwell (nee Scott) managed to get us out of Burnside Presbyterian Children’s Home in Parra-matta (Sydney) once she was able to secure a centrally located two bedroom State HousingCommission flat in her hometown of Tamworth NSW and an invalid pension. Two pounds (four dollars) was all she had in the first month. There were no supporting parent benefits or community support programmes at that time.

Coincidentally, Ellen Rodwell died (at age 55) 16 years later on the same day – 23rd May. The causes of death were recorded as: i) Acute heart failure (days); ii) Emphysema (years); iiiUlcers (years) and iv) Malnutrition (years). Her demise can only be regarded as nothing less than a merciful release.The inscription on her plaque reads, “The suffering is over, but the pain lives on for those who remember our ever-loving mother”.

Tamworth West Public School was diagonally across the road from us. Classroom learning and after hours study captured my young imagination and suited the quiet home environment my mother required. A few years earlier, at the age of four in church homes, it was noticed that I had not started speaking. Apparently, my speech was undeveloped. My siblings and I were in different age groups and church homes and I didn’t really have anyone to talk to anyway. I attended speech therapy whilst in third and fourth grades, absorbing myself in as much formal education as I could. Here was a field of endeavour, in which I was free to research, ask questions and explore to my heart’s content. For most subjects, I was placed in classes two years ahead of my age. By the end of primary, I was school dux and vice-captain making public speeches (on auspicious occasions, such as ANZAC Day and Easter), as well as a recipient of a bursary for the first four years of high school.



Swimming (and sunbaking) at the town public baths was my preferred sport/pastime during summer. Any coastal vacations were relished. Playing and tackling as a rugby league second rower during winter, provided me with camaraderie and some useful strategic skills and attitudes for life. We did not have a family car, so the main modes of transport available were walking or bike riding. My older brother introduced me to cycling as an interest and sport.

By the age of 12, all seemed stable, even dandy, until my mother’s health deteriorated further. She suffered greatly through intense bouts of loneliness and depression, accompanied by a nasty addiction to prescribed medication. My siblings had already left school and home and were working.

For the first six months of high school, I was placed in the notorious Salvation Army Gill Memorial Home for Boys in Goulburn NSW. Even though the privileges of being No. 1 or head boy were extended to me, I absconded and returned to what I regarded as my hometown, attending Tamworth High School. Over the years since then, the city of Tamworth has become known as the “Country Music Capital of Australia”.

After leaving school, I gained employment with the NSW Railways, completed relevant specialized studies, performed platform and clerical duties in the telegraph/parcels/booking offices and goods shed on the mid north coast, before relocating to the metropolitan network in Sydney. A few months prior to turning 20, I voluntarily enlisted in the Australian Regular Army.This was during peace time.

My mathematical/analytical abilities saw me initially allocated to the Royal Australian Survey Corps(map making). I later transferred to the Royal Australian Engineers corps and trained as what is now referred to as a combat engineer (roads, bridges, airfields, trenches, water supply, booby traps, minefields,explosives, firefighting and first aid). With the rank of sapper; ingenuity, resourcefulness and improvisation were key characteristics.
Upon discharge from the military, my sights were focused on gaining formal tertiary qualifications and hands-on managerial experience in business (finance, property, conveyancing and insurance). As I successfully climbed the corporate ladder, I realized that I did not possess any excessive levels of greed. My conscience steered me away from the commercial world into personal counselling roles, particularly those burdened with monetary concerns, much the same as my own mother, who had spent hours alone crying at night over the kitchen table.

My first wife and I met in Brisbane. Our three children (two sons and one daughter) are now adults leading their own independent lives elsewhere.


At the turn of this century, I reassessed and reinvented myself by studying computers (hardware, software,internetworking, website design), thinking such skills would assist when moving abroad as an expatriate.There is no doubt that computer technology has played a significant role for me since hand.

Travel always appealed to me. Apart from broadening the mind, I felt that moving away from Australia and living as an expatriate for an extended period would allow me to better understand myself, the world and others. I had already circled the globe once, so I wasn’t venturing into the total unknown.

At the age of 44, I challenged myself with climatic, linguistic and cultural shock by accepting an English teaching role in socially isolated provincial northern China.You could say that I did the hard strokes and paid my vocational dues there. The next natural step was to do formal training in Thailand the following year in teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL). I returned to mainland China afterwards via India, Nepal and Tibet.

Better familiarizing myself with the demographics of the People’s Republic, I accepted full time government university teaching jobs in preferred locations. The language departments/faculties taught business, culture, linguistics and literature. Business communication and culture were always my favourites, but I was also introduced to journalism by being given it as a subject to teach for a couple of semesters. Please bear in mind that my students were often post graduates (aged 22 -30) proficient in English as a second language.


Chinese professors shared my philosophy that the purpose of education is to produce enlightened minds. Academia suited me well. Vacation breaks were frequent and lengthy, so I was able to travel extensively,domestically and worldwide. To date, I have been to 50 countries in Asia, Europe, Oceania, South America, the Middle East, and United Kingdom.

Extra curriculum opportunities were often presented to me when contact was made from within and outside the universities that I was associated with. These included judging and compering national English speaking, singing and acting contests; attending official banquets and conferences; writing/editing for newspapers and magazines; involvement as an honorary envoy for the local state association for friendship with foreign countries; collaborating with the production, promotion and distribution of a hardcover publication of a book designed as a comprehensive guide to the culture of Sichuan province in the southwest of China; as well as doing interviews for radio, television and printed media.

Separately, military history intrigued me, so my travels also included Changi Prison and The Battle Box in Singapore; The River Kwai and Death Railway in Thailand; The Killing Fields in Cambodia; The War Museum in Vietnam, The International Peace Centre in Japan and Auschwitz Extermination Camp in Poland.

Having been raised in church homes and being part of a generation that considered Sunday School to be beneficial and normal, I have been able to travel,work, live and interact in societies with different and mixed religious perspectives (Agnostic, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, and Judaism). My most significant voluntary stints to date include teaching English at a Buddhist University in Myanmar (Burma) to monks and local laypeople, plus participation in an education development programme in South America through the United Nations.



In 2009–2010 (aged 51), I returned to Australia for the best part of a year with the intention of completing a course in peace building for the troubled small nations of the Pacific Islands and South East Asia. Dates did not coincide and course structures appeared to have changed. Alternatively, I enrolled in a Christian counselling course. I determined that if counselling fell between the two stools of psychology and theology, then my own personal leaning would be towards humanitarianism. I subsequently did an external Diploma of Community Services (Financial Counselling) over the span of 18 months. However, government funding cuts drastically affected the (NGOs) non-government organizations providing such service to the general public.

An interest in anthropology had developed within me over the years of living in the world at large. Human migration patterns and cultural influences became more obvious. The latter part of 2010, I commenced teaching English at a medical college in the province of Inner Mongolia, northern China. Figuratively speaking, the world had turned by the start of 2011, and I was at a stage of life contemplating my future. Well, at least for the next five – 10 years.

Before departing South America in 2009, I had been learning Spanish. I did Latin in high school, so reading Romance languages was not really of concern. The quiet stage of learning another language was passing. I had begun thinking in Spanish, but I wasn’t ready then to totally leave the English-speaking world. Allowing for seasons, a flight valid for one year was booked from Shanghai to the United Kingdom as a gateway to South America. With spare time up my sleeve, I visited South Korea and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The northern winter had been long and I craved some warmth. My life changed completely when I next travelled to The Philippines.
2 You have led an amazing life to date, including being held captive for 472 days. Please tell us something about this;

I have the dubious distinction of being the longest held Australian captive out of war, after being shot through the right hand when seized from my home at Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines on December 5, 2011 by the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG),Islamic militant terrorists. It was necessary to eventually have a finger amputated.The ASG threatened to behead me if the original ransom demand for $US2 million was not paid. Both the Philippine and Australian governments had strict policies of refusing to pay ransoms. Australia formed a multi-agency task force to assist the Philippine authorities and liaise with my family. A news blackout was imposed. Filipino politicians helped negotiate the release. After the payment of $AUD94,000 for "board and lodging" expenses by my siblings, I was released 472 days later on March 23, 2013, and subsequently returned to Australia to rehabilitate, after .losing about 30 kilograms in weight due to starvation. March 23rd would have also been my late mother's birthday.


More than 15 months hiding in isolated tropical island jungles, including more than 15 months hiding in isolated tropical island jungles, including 10 weeks in a war zone during Ramadan, resulted in arthritis and neuropathy setting into both fee tcausing shooting pain up to and above my shins. Combined with the lack of food, exercise and nutrition, I was barely able to walk unaided. My vision and hearing diminished. Upon release, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), looking very much like a skeletal prisoner of war. At my first media conference, reporter Zoe Daniel from the Australian Broadcasting Commission eloquently described me as “a broken depleted human being”, who appeared to have aged by 20 to 30 years.

3 How exactly did this come about?

I had previously been to The Philippines and liked the warm climate, beaches and friendly people. English was widely spoken and living costs were reasonably low. With the Australian dollar high and some reserve capital behind me (not enough to really do much with elsewhere), I embarked on a plan of setting up an international home base here, with the goal of eventually living between three countries; China, The Philippines and Australia.

I did marry a Filipina, who wanted to live close to her family in a provincial region. This suited me because I had grown up in a country town, so I built a house over the span of six months, in a new subdivision on the outskirts of a small capital city. I was assured by the developer and local officials that I was in a safe region. This is where I was shot and abducted about three weeks prior to Christmas 2011. Fortunately for my spouse, she was at her parents’ home in another village when the kidnapping occurred.



SITUATION NOT NORMAL –Lyrics by Warren R Rodwell (2015)
Shot through the hand
Cuffed and dragged…
Across the land
Down to the boat
I heard these words from my host
Situation, not normal
Situation, not normal
See the state I’m in
Frail and dampened
Too stunned to grin
But now, not so handsome
Who can I trust in the place that we’re at No sense of rescue Somehow, we knew
there’s no turning back
Situation, not normal
Not normal at all”
Situation, not normal
Faith is not mine
Hope is just a false lie
A knife at my throat
Reminds me I’m still alive
Strung up, with hate
No chance of escape,
Bound and gagged,
Trapped in their crusade,
And all I could hear
Were these words from my host
Situation not normal, Situation not normal
With a media blackout
No one knowsmy plight
Losing strength and weight
Barely able to survive
With the pain of suffering
Wasting away almost everything
Ribcage too big for my skin
And a head held for ransom
Situation, not normal
Not normal at all
Situation, not normal

4 Because of this nightmare, you have been extensively interviewed in Australia, the USA,the UK, Europe, The Middle East and Asia. Has this been through all forms of media? Can you please tell us a little bit about this?

Based on the official transcripts of interviews conducted with the Australian Federal Police and with my own collaboration, the biography “472 Days Captive of the Abu Sayyaf -The Survival of Australian Warren Rodwell” by independent Australian researcher Dr Robert (Bob) East was published in hard cover and electronic versions by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, United Kingdom (2015) ISBN 1-4438-7058-7. In popular culture, Blue Mountains (Sydney Australia) techno Cow-punk band Mad Cowboy Disease composed, performed and released “Situation Not Normal”,a song I wrote, based on my ordeal. I have included the lyrics in this interview for readers.



Award-winning Filipino journalist and CEO of Rappler, Maria A. Ressa wrote at some length about my case in the international edition of her Imperial College Press - published book “From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism' ISBN 978-1-908979-53-7 (Refer to Pages 265 -271) Crowdsourcing for ransom and social media (such as, Facebook and YouTube) were used by Abu Sayyaf during negotiations. The author asserts on Page 270; "Social media is changing what was once a closed dialogue between kidnappers, their victims and governments."

Additionally, (reserve) Colonel in the Israel Defence Forces and research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT), Dr Shaul Shay, analysed my terror abduction in: 'Global Jihad and The Tactic of Terror Abduction : A Comprehensive Review of Islamic Terrorist Organisations'. ISBN 978-1-84519-611-0 (Sussex Academic Press).



There has been extensive world media coverage of my case and I during captivity by all major media networks in various languages. This still continues as terrorists involved are captured and other international events unfold. Interviews I have done include television (For example:  'Today Tonight', 'TheToday Show' and 'The Sally-Anne Show'), radio [Australian ABC Radio National 'Sunday Profile' and 'The Chris Brake Show' (four times) from the USA]. Topics vary from terrorism to psychological, cultural, philosophical and historical insights. Newspapers and magazines have also run features on me. Many videos have been uploaded to YouTube. In so far as public speaking for training purposes goes, I have willingly cooperated with the Australian military. As a side note, the 'Sunday Profile' homepage states that the program 'features major players in Australian life, with background information and detailed analysis complementing in-depth interviews'. I understand that my own original interview has been played on at least three separate broadcasts so far. From a public speaking stance, that is most satisfying.



5 And the Government now will not compensate you. What is their reasoning for this?

There is an Australian Federal Government compensation scheme in place for victims of terrorism abroad. The maximum amount available would cover the balance I owe my siblings for my release and life. To be eligible to make application, the incumbent Prime Minister must officially declare my kidnapping as an act of terrorism. Even though I have patiently gone through the correct channels by lodging a request to the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, the formal response is that the matter is now one for the Prime Minister to decide.
Regardless of repeated efforts to communicate directly with the current or previous Prime Minister, as well as other significant politicians, I seem to be getting overlooked or ignored.This is rather ironic. As already mentioned, the present Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made an apology to Forgotten Australians when he was Opposition Leader back in November 2009. As time has passed, one could say that the Forgotten Australians have been forgotten again, not only in a collective sense, but also individually.



A newspaper story entitled: 'Threatened With Beheading, Starved and Held Hostage for 472 Days, but Government Won't Compensate Kidnapped Australian as Incident L Wasn't OFFICIALLY a 'Terror Event' was published on 6th April 2015 by the Daily Mail (Australia and United Kingdom). Although Australia had a different leader at that time, the now current Prime Minister and his assistant with counter terrorism, have also been notified. Even members of the federal opposition and other parties have been approached, but to no avail.
On the recommendation of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) with specific reference to my case, the Attorney General’s Department relisted the Abu Sayyaf Group in 2013 as a terrorist organisation: “Directly or indirectly engaged in, preparing, planning or assisting in the doing of terrorist acts”.

I was quoted in the Daily Mail as follows, “The prime minister has no time for doing things like this” and I attributed part of this situation to my low public profile. I was not a convicted drug smuggler nor a journalist. There were no political points or gain to be made through recognising me or acknowledging my eligibility for compensation as an Australian.




6 You also have many other skills. What exactly are they?
Resilience, adaptability, versatility, pragmatism, perseverance and a dry sense of humour; all rate up high, with advanced maturity being my greatest asset (skill). It is probably the best benchmark for assessment of where I am at in my own personal evolvement. Having travelled extensively experiencing some wonderful yet unexpected adventures and reactions (positive, negative and spontaneous), surviving prolonged starvation and beheading threats, being shot and subsequently resettling back in my home country. All of these have yielded a greater self-mastery of emotions and attitudes along with a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the world and life. By western standards, I could be viewed as being complex(sophisticated). However, a Chinese colleague once described me as being “a simple person, who does complex things”.

I usually take a top-down view of myself and diligently endeavour to understand, in simple terms, what’s going on around me, approaching tasks or problem-solving methodically and rationally. Mid-life crisis never lasted long. I acknowledge my own mortality and feel an inner peace from the acceptance of life, looking back on my accomplishments with some satisfaction, allowing for inherent natural constraints and restrictions. The media and history books classify me as “a former soldier, university teacher, hostage survivor and songwriter”. During the kidnap period, I was often referred to as an “international adventurer”. For general purposes nowadays, I would be inclined to endorse“academic/creative” as an enduring tag.

7 You are also a songwriter for the group ‘Mad Cowboy Disease’. How long have you been doing this for? Do you write all the songs for the group? Do you also sing and/or play an instrument?

No. I do not professionally sing or play any instruments. My stage skills are normally applied through public speaking or media interviews.

It was through social media, about one year ago, that I connected with the lead singer, Josie Critter. We clicked immediately. I had already penned lyrics and knew instinctively that Josie’s almost treacle vocals and passion for music could do the most justice to convey the raw feeling required.The tune, lyrics, instruments, and of course Josie Critter’s deep voice really come across as a finely crafted dark, powerful, haunting yet rhythmic, blend, timed to perfection.

The satirical cabaret-style techno cow-punk band 'Mad Cowboy Disease' formed in 2007. They normally write their own songs. JosieCritter has been a musician for decades on end. My first published song 'Situation Not Normal' is a gut-wrenching,almost danceable outline of my suffering in a frank non-bitter way. It was composed and performed with an “Arab blend gangster rap feel”. The band’s fourth album, as yet untitled, will feature 'Situation Not Normal'.

My next song with 'Mad Cowboy Disease' will feature the talented Patsy Inclined, as the mood, theme, tempo and general style is different to Situation. It would probably be imprudent for me to go into much more detail at this stage. Nevertheless, there is another well-established performer that I have had in depth discussions with over an extended time. His touring schedule is full, but he does have my lyrics of an upbeat piece and I understand he is progressively working on them, or at least, that’s what he tells me.



8 You have many other interests as well. What do you enjoy doing in your ‘spare’ time?

Neuropathy in both feet has slowed me down a lot physically, although that is gradually improving. For the first year or two of being back in Australia, my emotions were numb. I didn’t get out much. My way of reconnecting with the larger world that I knew, was to get active again on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter).I build my own websites and administer some discussion groups. My circles mainly include media personnel, life coaches, published writers and speakers. In other words, switched-on positive folk.

I keep abreast of world events, especially terrorism, as my own experience has given me considerable insight. Journalists and academics often correspond with me.



Photography has been a continuous passion. My digital art flair has developed significantly. To date, I have created more than 120 YouTube video clips. Because I am waiting on a political decision regarding the official declaration of my criminal abduction as an act of terrorism, I have followed Ausan federal politics closely enough to understand its inconsistencies and contradictions. Having said that, I try to be as pragmatic as reasonably practicable and harbour no political aspirations of my own. At least, not in the foreseeable future.

9 You have also amassed numerous awards. Please tell us about that;

The most recent award that I have received is a certificate of thanks from the Commonwealth Government in recognition of voluntary local community service. It is highly unlikely that I will ever get an Order of Australia medal, be made Australian of The Year, or anything similar.

Award ceremonies and formal dinners are delightful to attend. However, I craved hot potato chips with tomato sauce (ketchup) when I was close to death starving in the jungle for 472 days.

10 What are your short and long term goals for the future?

I am at a stage of life where I don’t really need to make long term plans. Except for basic living costs, I have no debt or burdensome relationship responsibilities/obligations. The consequences of being kidnapped will have consumed a five year span of my life by the end of 2016. If you recall, I had formulated a five year plan when moving to The Philippines in 2011. It is not advisable for me to return to the same region.

It was my own concern to determine how much my siblings kindly and generously contributed for my release. My mid-term goal has been to repay them. Thus, releasing myself from that financial undertaking. Legitimate compensation for being a victim of terrorism overseas would see me straight. This may occur during the coming 12 months. If so, then the next five year plan could be considered.



My current lifestyle is comfortable, but a beach, more physical exercise and social mobility would further enhance it. Whilst captive, I relished the prospect of circling the globe for a third time and possibly taking some dance lessons. A ship cruise would also be fun. However, those few options are yet to be seriously actioned. In the near future, I expect to have another song released. An extended play (EP) album tends to consist of five songs, so that is the total number I am heading towards, as the term “one hit wonder”, in my opinion, is rather lame. Producers of an international television series have already expressed interest in making a documentary of my story. Actors would be supplied. All going to plan, this project could be completed this year. That would suit me fine. In the meantime, I remain open to any other suggestions, opportunities or requests.

To avoid any potential misunderstanding, it should be noted that I am neither a philanthropist, nor an activist. Granted, the world has its problems. If the lucky among us have nine lives, then I have calculated that I have two left and I would prefer to keep the last one in reserve.

11 Is there anything further you would like to add to this to share with the world?

As part of the 2015 Australia Day Honours, Australian Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Joseph Barta was awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross (CSC) for outstanding devotion to duty as the Assistant Defence Attaché Manila during the Australian whole of government response to my kidnap for ransom (and immediately following, the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan). At the 2015 Australian Federal Police Foundation Day award ceremony in Canberra, 14 AFP members received the Commissioners’ Group Citation for Conspicuous Conduct for their work in support of the Philippine National Police and Australian Government efforts to release me. I have nothing, but respect and praise, for all Commonwealth government agencies involved, especially; The Australian Defence Force (ADF), Australian Federal Police (AFP), Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)

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1 comment:

  1. Very interesting.......your life is full of facts and i wish to do half of what you did.....i really wish to join in one of your future adventure or travel...please let me know

    ReplyDelete